The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin/Section Nine
When about 16 Years of Age, I happen’d to meet with a Book, written by one Tryon, recommending a Vegetable Diet. I determined to go into it. My Brother being yet unmarried, did not keep House, but boarded himself & his Apprentices in another Family. My refusing to eat Flesh occasioned an Inconveniency, and I was frequently chid for my singularity. I made myself acquainted with Tryon’s Manner of preparing some of his Dishes, such as Boiling Potatoes or Rice, making Hasty Pudding, & a few others, and then propos’d to my Brother, that if he would give me Weekly half the Money he paid for my Board I would board myself. He instantly agreed to it, and I presently found that I could save half what he paid me. This was an additional Fund for buying Books: But I had another Advantage in it. My Brother and the rest going from the Printinghouse to their Meals, I remain’d there alone, and dispatching presently my light Repast, (which often was no more than a Biscuit or a Slice of Bread, a Handful of Raisins or a Tart from the Pastry Cook’s, & a Glass of Water) had the rest of the Time till their Return, for Study, in which I made the greater Progress from that greater Clearness of Head & quicker Apprehension which usually attend Temperance in Eating & Drinking. And now it was that being on some Occasion made asham’d of my Ignorance in Figures, which I had twice failed in learning when at School, I took Cocker’s Book of Arithmetic, & went thro’ the whole by myself with great Ease. I also read Seller’s & Sturmy’s Books of Navigation, & became acquainted with the little Geometry they contain, but never proceeded far in that Science. And I read about this Time Locke on Human Understanding, and the Art of Thinking by Messrs du Port Royal.
While I was intent on improving my Language, I met with an English Grammar (I think it was Greenwood’s) at the End of which there were two little Sketches of the Arts of Rhetoric and Logic, the latter finishing with a Specimen of a Dispute in the Socratic Method. And soon after I procur’d Xenophon’s Memorable Things of Socrates, wherein there are many Instances of the same Method. I was charm’d with it, adopted it, dropped my abrupt Contradiction, and positive Argumentation, and put on the humble Inquirer & Doubter. And being then, from reading Shaftsbury & Collins, become a real Doubter in many Points of our Religious Doctrine, I found this Method safest for myself & very embarrassing to those against whom I used it, therefore I took a Delight in it, practis’d it continually & grew very artful & expert in drawing People even of superior Knowledge into Concessions the Consequences of which they did not foresee, entangling them in Difficulties out of which they could not extricate themselves, and so obtaining Victories that neither myself nor my Cause always deserved. I continu’d this Method some few years, but gradually left it, retaining only the Habit of expressing myself in Terms of modest Diffidence, never using when I advance any thing that may possibly be disputed, the Words, Certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the Air of Positiveness to an Opinion; but rather say, I conceive, or I apprehend a Thing to be so or so, It appears to me, or I should think it so or so for such & such Reasons, or I imagine it to be so, or it is so if I am not mistaken. This Habit I believe has been of great Advantage to me, when I have had occasion to inculcate my Opinions & persuade Men into Measures that I have been from time to time engag’d in promoting. And as the chief Ends of Conversation are to inform, or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well-meaning sensible Men would not lessen their Power of doing Good by a Positive assuming Manner that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create Opposition, and to defeat every one of those Purposes for which Speech was given us, to wit, giving or receiving Information, or Pleasure: Forif you would inform, a positive dogmatical Manner in advancing your Sentiments, may provoke Contradiction & prevent a candid Attention. If you wish Information & Improvement from the Knowledge of others and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fix’d in your present Opinions, modest sensible Men, who do not love Disputation, will probably leave you undisturb’d in the Possession of your Error; and by such a Manner you can seldom hope to recommend yourself in pleasing your Hearers, or to persuade those whose Concurence you desire. Pope says, judiciously, Men should be taught as if you taught them not, And things unknown propos’d as things forgot, farther recommending it to us, To speak tho’ sure, with seeming Diffidence.
And he might have coupled with this Line that which he has coupled with another, I think less properly, For Want of Modesty is Want of Sense.
If you ask why, less properly, I must repeat the Lines; Immodest Words admit of no Defense; For Want of Modesty is Want of Sense.
Now is not Want of Sense (where a Man is so unfortunate as to want it) some Apology for his Want of Modesty? and would not the Lines stand more justly thus? Immodest Words admit but this Defense, That Want of Modesty is Want of Sense. This however I should submit to better Judgments.